At the close of every year, there is a list of overused words to be banished from the language. “Twerk” was on it this year, as was anything with the suffix “pocalypse” as in “snowpocalypse.” But topping the list was “selfie” – a self-portrait usually taken with a phone. Could it be that we are growing weary of self-consumption?
Saul Bellow drew a vivid character in his novel, Henderson The Rain King, a man the novelist modeled on himself, a man weary of himself. From the self-description on the opening page, we jump right into Mr. Henderson’s tumultuous existence.
“When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in my chest. A disorderly rush begins – my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, ‘No, no get back, curse you, let me alone!’ But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns to chaos.”
Most people like to take stock of themselves in the New Year—everything from their parents and children, to habits, money, drunkenness, and faces. People take metaphorical selfies. A Bruce Springsteen line from years ago sticks with me. “I take a look in the mirror –I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face.” Yet all these things have belonged to us this past year, and the year before, and likely the year ahead. They belong to me—they are mine. Sometimes all the things that belong to us: prejudices, brutality, teeth, soul do pile in and create an urgent need that rises within.
Closer to home, a friend recently shared his 3 am thoughts with me.
“I am now at full-scale war with myself. Minor skirmishes have been happening for years. The weapons in these battles are my own thoughts – pangs of anxiety regarding a variety of issues – why isn’t my career going the way I want it? Why am I not a better husband? Why don’t I ever seem to have enough money? How am I going to pay for college for my three kids? What if I lose my job and haven’t saved enough to bridge me to the next one? What am I doing with my life? Pretty standard stuff, I think, especially for those of us in so-called mid-life.
But lately, the skirmishes have given way to major battles – fought between warring factions within my mind – between the light and the darkness; between hope and dread; between joy and despair; between the man I desperately want to believe I am and the man I fear I may in fact be. Who am I, really? Am I doomed and destined for cataclysmic failure? Have I made mistakes from which I can’t recover? Will my wife and children pay the price for my shortcomings? How can I live with that?”
So often your “self” feels like an enormous problem to be solved with the solution always just out of reach. In the novel, Mr. Henderson travels to Africa to seek wisdom, to find help for the voice that clamors in his head and in his heart, a voice that is on an endless repeat cycle crying, “I want, I want, I want, I want.”
The year just passed is depicted as an old man, while the New Year is depicted as a baby, presumably innocent, fresh, and full of promise. And that may be true. But think about an actual baby. Babies are basically a bundle of desires that need to be met and met immediately. A baby’s existence is defined by “I want, I want, I want, I want.”
As Bellow makes clear, “I want, I want, I want, I want” is a tyranny. Princeton professor Robert George critiques modern liberal arts education. He says the universities are now all about
“enabling students to become truly ‘authentic’ individuals – people who are true themselves. Here the question is – what is the ‘self’ to which the authentic person is true? (The new ideology says) to be true to oneself is to act on one’s desires. Indeed, what one fundamentally is – is one’s desires. So authenticity – being true to oneself – is understood to consist in doing what you really want to do, in defiance, if necessary, of… moral ideas and social norms.”
George says that classic liberal arts education is not about helping students discover and then follow their desires, but instead it is about learning from Aristotle and Shakespeare and Dante and Plato in order to master and overcome one’s desires, particularly when those desires cry out “I want I want” and pile into you from all sides. He says it is not about “liberation to act on our desires – it is, rather, liberation from slavery to those desires – from slavery to self.”
This is not a sermon about the state of education, but instead a sermon about help for the self, or the soul, at the beginning of this New Year. Could help come from another source of ancient wisdom? Well, obviously we hope so – that’s why we’re here on the first Sunday of 2014. St. Paul says that our selves – laden with intractable contradictions and pressing anxieties, have in fact been “blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” He says that we are no less than God’s children, holy and blameless before him in love.
At least some of the “I want, I want, I want, I want” in us is a deep desire for exoneration. When you are about to die – when you’ve had a heart attack and you’re on the operating table with doctors trying to revive you – when your life flashes before your eyes the critical instant – you are not going to be thinking about how much money you made or whether the Wahoos had a winning season or your board and civic memberships.
What will you be thinking about? Very likely you will be thinking about your wife or ex-husband, your children or your sister or your father. And very likely you will be worrying about how your tyrannous self did major damage, wondering if your wife and children will pay for your shortcomings. And very likely you will be thinking about God – the zero hour is finally here. And what will you want, want, want to hear from the God you are about to meet face to face?
Our friend Mr. Henderson was onto the very word we need right on the first page of the novel. He frantically searches his father’s vast library for a fragment of a sentence that had given him hope. He can’t locate it exactly but remembers it’s searing message: “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” Henderson says, “This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was.”
Well, it could have been what we sometimes call “the Good Book.” For “the forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required” could easily serve as a summation of God’s message to us, a message that we will absolutely require during our heart attack. And, it’s a pretty useful message in this New Year or any day during any year.
It’s a message that comes from outside of us, like rations dropped from a helicopter into the skirmishes of our selves and selfies. Here comes a parachute package: you put your phone camera down to open it up and find the message for you, almost like a fortune cookie: “you are holy and blameless before him in love.” Here comes another dropping in: “His glorious grace He has freely bestowed on you.” And one more: “the forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” Good Lord, who needs a selfie when you’ve got this to go around saying to yourself!
Our 3 am friend also found these parachute packages. In the wake of his war, he concludes,
“Faith is the key in the battle to preserve hope; faith and confidence and trust and belief not in yourself (though that’s nice if you can get there), but in God’s love. I believe that nothing preceded God’s love for me, that I didn’t have to earn it and that I can’t lose it. I trust that Jesus has known me and accepted me as his own from the moment I was conceived. I have faith that he loves me without limit or condition, whether or not I love myself at any given moment.”
This message isn’t hard – it’s the easiest thing in the world. In fact, it’s so easy a baby can do it. We’re baptizing Cabell Zahl today. Luther said that babies believe at baptism because to have faith just means to trust. And babies trust. They just trust that the parachute packages of love and forgiveness and grace freely bestowed will come to them now, and if now, then why not always? Why will they not always come to me, and all that is mine, and to you, and all this is yours? For the forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.
- Ephesians 1